Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cri de Coeur

Many years ago, when newspapers were in bloom, the Detroit Free Press ran a writing competition every Christmas. I’m not sure if there was a prize, but I do remember that they printed the best three or so entries. The winners were always imaginative and well written. Detroit is a city with numerous colleges and universities with strong English departments, and countless writers who can make words sing.

One year I entered the competition. It must have been in the seventies. Mine was not a serious entry, not did I mean it to be. In a different time, in a different place, and, let’s face it, if I had any spare cash, I would have poured out all those words to a psychologist, trying to reconcile the countless chores of a parent with young children at Christmas with the need to make the Advent season a time of quiet and reflection and unhurried preparation. I still had memories of my annual trip to the Royal Festival Hall to hear The Messiah, I loved the idea of shopping for the perfect Christmas gift and sitting by the fire with a leisurely cup of tea, listening to carols. We were alone in a big city with no family to lend a hand and Toys"R"Us had lost its lustre. You may wonder where I found the time to write this opus if I didn’t have the time for a quick chorus of Silent Night, but it was important to me, so I did. I can’t remember if I wrote it in the first person or how I constructed it, but I am pretty sure that whoever read it threw it in the nearest wastebasket.

It served its purpose and I think that’s what words are for. That’s why there are so many blogs. If this were Redbook I’d come up with some schmaltzy ending, something about having the time and the leisure now and how I’d give anything to go back to those days when the beds were un-made, I stayed up until 2:00 a.m. to make cookies and the shining lights on the Christmas tree made even the whiniest kid smile with delight. I wouldn’t.

Oh, that entry? I never heard from The Free Press. And a few years later they stopped running the competition.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Three Score Years and Ten

I have spent the past week basking in memories of last weekend, which combined Thanksgiving with a wonderful party on Saturday in honor of my seventieth birthday. All the children and grandchildren assembled on Friday morning for a "photoshoot." Mike, our photographer, did a masterful job with eighteen children under the age of twelve (though some thanks go to Lucy's friend Janie. Her dance routine behind Mike mesmerized the little ones!)

The house is still full of flowers, the refrigerator contains a few interesting left-overs and the hard work of my terrific family warms my heart. Thanks, guys.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Fairy on Stilts?

Soon Thanksgiving will be over and December will be here. You know, that time of year when we re-read Dickens' A Mid-Winter's Carol, send out Holiday cards and grow misty eyed as we hum along to I'm Dreaming of a White ... Come to think of it, that song has not joined the ranks of the politically correct.

Not yet. But Scotland is leading the way. Dundee, to be precise. Clearly the good citizens feel the need to celebrate something and, "instead of the traditional nativity story, the festival will feature a solar-powered disco, a continental market, a circus and a fairy on stilts."

Oy vey.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Technology Marches On

Need to cut a thread while at a basketball game? Need to unscrew something while out in the woods? Ernie has always come to the rescue, pulling out his trusty Swiss Army knife.

His style has been considerably cramped of late by the efficient TSA inspectors at airports, who tell him in no uncertain terms he can’t take his knife on board a plane. Twice he solved the problem—once by sticking the offending object in a planter and retrieving it on the way home, once by secreting it under a wastebasket. On one occasion when he remembered to put the knife in his carry-on baggage and take it all the way to DC, he was stopped from entering the Library of Congress. Bet you didn’t know there are indentations in the brick facade of the L of C where you can stick a knife for an hour or two. It will be a while before he tries that one again: on our last trip to Washington he once again forgot he was carrying the knife and had to surrender it.

I just saw the latest Swiss Army knife in the National Geographic Catalog. In addition to all the usual blades, screwdrivers, files etc., there is now ... a USB drive. So next time you are out in the woods you can skin a snake, cut little pieces of kindling and, if you come across a computer, write up your field notes.

But those crafty Swiss, they think of everything. “The drive also detaches easily from the tool so it can be placed in your carry-on bag.” I don’t suppose the USB drive would work too well after sitting in a planter for a week.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Crinoline Lady

Recently I was telling Kate about the Collyer brothers and how their fatal passion for hoarding gave their name to fire department codes indicating a house packed to the gills with potentially flammable materials. As is so often the case, within a few days there was an article in the Wall Street Journal describing other tragedies caused by this addiction to collecting excess possessions.

I’m not guilty of this kind of behavior, although I will admit that as I was putting stuff back into the dining room and re-arranging the drawers in a couple of chests, I lovingly ran my hands over a few things which I have been hanging on to for over forty years.

My mother’s mother lived
about a mile away and every week day afternoon (except Monday: that was washday) my mother walked to my grandmother’s, where they sat and drank tea and knitted until Mrs Dale’s Diary was over and it was time to go and get our tea. Sometimes, instead of knitting, my mother would do what she called “her embroidery.” She would embroider pillow slips or tray cloths or little doilies. Some of these are now in my possession—rarely if ever used. I wash them once in a while, starch them, iron them and put them back in the drawer. I can’t bear to throw them away. I am not sure if they are all my mother’s work. Some of the white on white and cut work items are exquisite and I think they may have been done by my Auntie Doris. What I remember my mother doing were variations of a design known as “A Crinoline Lady” or sometimes “An Old Fashioned Lady”. It always involved a large crinoline skirt and a parasol and there were usually flowers or butterflies in the background. The Crinoline lady in the photograph on the left was on a pillow slip, finished with crochet work.

I’m not even sure if my mother used them. I treasure them, and hope that my similarity to Langley Collyer ends there.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


"He'll be there between 3:00 and 6:00". He is the refrigerator repair man. One of these days I will write about my refrigerator. The lemon.

Anyway, the hands of the clock edged closer and closer to 6:00. And once again, the waiting window served its purpose.

Monday, November 09, 2009


Remember my post about the waiting window? I wrote it over two years ago and in my last sentence I lamented the need for some new wallpaper. Well, here’s the waiting window today. I love the riot of scarlet and crimson in the paper. I wasn’t exactly looking for wallpaper when I found this, but when I saw it, I knew I must have it.

I seem to throw sidebars into most of my posts. Here’s today’s. We bought this house 40 years ago and I wallpapered the dining room twice before. The first time was in the seventies. Avocado green and yellow floral stripes. Well, I told you it was the seventies. It was actually rather attractive, though I was too inexperienced to realize that when you have an old house, the walls tend to be crooked and broad stripes are not the way to go. This paper was followed in the late eighties with the teal paper in the earlier photograph. Both times I did the entire job by myself. The first time I had a slew of small children running around, the second I was working full time. But I don’t seem to remember the job seeming onerous.

Flash forward to 2009. My plan was to do it all again. When Kate offered to help me, I was delighted. You guessed it. She did it all, while I stood around tired and clueless. I can't thank her enough. It was difficult paper to work with, but it is done and I will never wall paper that room again.

We still have to agree on a rug and I will have to reupholster the chairs, but I smile every morning when I catch sight of this cheerful paper. I still wait by the window once in a while, even if it is just to remember waiting for a husband to make it home from work and for children to creep home in the wee small hours.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


I need to lose a little weight. Quite a bit of weight, actually. A lot of weight. If I decide to get serious, I know where to start. I must reactivate my gym membership and spend a few hours on the bicycle, the rowing machine and the treadmill. And I need to watch what I stuff in my mouth. I am pretty sure it is not what I eat, but how much that is the problem. Portion control will be my new mantra.

One thing I will not do is eat this disgusting looking food. I cannot for the life of me see how a person could lose weight—let alone keep diabetes in check—by eating pancakes and syrup, lasagne, chicken salad with mayonnaise, and brownies. Nary a green leaf in sight (except for a ruff of lettuce and a pickle or two) and these foods are being held up as objects of desire!

Perhaps you think this company’s advertising couldn’t get much worse. You are wrong. Here comes the sidebar. Ernie graduated from John Carroll with Don Shula. They were on the track team together, and that association caused us to follow Don’s immensely successful career as a football coach avidly.
He’s been retired for a while, but he suddenly popped up and informed us that a steady diet this food caused him to lose 32 lbs. Mrs. Shula got in on the act, losing 23 lbs. Why am I so upset? The lovely Mrs. Shula doesn’t refer to her husband as “Don” (“Donny?”), but proclaims (click on image), “It’s really important for Coach and me to enjoy our life and our family." Coach! Does she go around saying, “Coach, here’s your breakfast” or, “Coach, it’s time for the party.”

Too much Decadent Fudge Brownie is not a good thing.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Let's Eat Candy

I hope I will get a photo of Evelyn in the Dorothy dress I wrote about the other day. Until then, here are some old favorites:

Friday, October 30, 2009

We're not in Kansas Anymore

Over the years I've made a number of Halloween costumes. There is quite a wardrobe to pass around, so I only made one this year. This one will start its journey around the cousins with Evelyn. Let me show you the pattern. It's a Simplicity pattern and it comes in sizes 3,4,5,6,7, and 8. I made a size 7. Cute little model, isn't she? She's poking at her dimple a la Shirley Temple.There was another pattern starting at a size 8. I did not see fit to buy it and this photo is a bit blurry and shiny—I had to creep into JoAnns with my camera and commit sartorial espionage.

The question for today: compare and contrast these two models and their
dresses and decide which one you would send your daughter to elementary school in.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A History Lesson

I enjoy the occasional present: fun when it is something I have expressed a desire for, even nicer when it is a surprise. Several years ago Andrew presented me with a surprise—a book entitled Educating Women, A Pictorial History of Bedford College, University of London 1849-1985. I got my Bachelor’s degree at Bedford and I had always surmised that the names of various buildings and Scholarships were derived from founders of the college and the book proved that to be true, while it traced the history of the college from the beginning, through the war years, through the addition of (gasp) male students to the eventual merger in 1985 with Royal Holloway.

I was thumbing through it yesterday. I am afraid I had not paid much attention to the history of the college while I was attending it. I should have, because the women who supported it financially and with hard work in those early days were fighting for an unpopular cause—the education of women. There were photos of them, most the kind of women we would have uncharitably called old battle-axes. I came across a photograph of the first Principal, Miss Emily Penrose. Here she stands erect and imposing in her pleated shirtwaist. The book is vague about her own degrees—remember it was not until 1878 that the University of London allowed women to take degree examinations, and not until the 1920’s that they were allowed to do so at Oxford, thanks the diplomatic skills of Miss Penrose, who had left Bedford for Somerville College. I do know that she taught Ancient History.

Why did I notice Miss Penrose's photo? Yesterday the Wall Street Journal interviewed a trio of experts on the reasons why America lags behind in Math and Science. I wasn’t going to read the article, but this photo of a radiant blond caught my eye. Who is she? Amy Gutman, president of the University of Pennsylvania.

What a difference a century makes.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Calling all Economists

Surely gold is gold is gold is gold . . . That being the case, why does it matter who I buy gold from? I really don't get it.

It goes without saying I wouldn't buy it from some guy who was last heard of breaking into an office suite in the Watergate.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fares Please

Some time ago I wrote about our family's transportation in post war Britain. It was a pleasant surprise to come across a tangible memento of those days.

This is a tuppenny hapenny bus ticket issued by London Transport. When I first started riding on buses there was a driver, who had no contact with passengers, and a conductor, who held the color-coded tickets on a wooden board with springs, not unlike a series of mousetraps. This contraption was replaced by a machine with a roll of paper. The conductor punched in the relevant information and out came a ticket like the one in the photo. Since most buses were the iconic red double deckers and the conductor could be upstairs when the passengers boarded, there was a certain amount of honor involved, because fares were calculated from the point of boarding to the destination.

Some time later as buses were re-designed and transportation costs needed to be cut, the system was changed, conductors were eliminated and fares handed over to the driver on entry.

Oh, and that tuppenny hapenny business? Back then our currency consisted of pounds, shillings and pence. Twelve pence = one shilling, twenty shillings=one pound. A halfpenny, pronounced hapenny was legal tender as was the bright copper coin equal to half a hapenny, i.e. a farthing. Of course, England eventually switched to a decimal system and it is a source of some embarrassment for me when I am in England that I have to rummage through my wallet like someone who is completely ignorant of the system. Which I just about am. Give me a thrupenny bit any day.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

It's All in the Title

I heard a homily today about leadership and how great leaders eschew titles: Francis of Assisi wouldn’t take Holy Orders and assume the title which his elevation entitled him to, Fr. Bill Cunningham, who founded the successful Focus Hope program in Detroit, refused the rank of Monsignor.

Would that my Medigap insurance company felt the same way. They erroneously refused to cover my shingles shot until my phone call made them admit they were wrong. Actually, they never said they were wrong, but they sent me a nice letter telling me they were “pleased to inform you that your claim was approved”. Then came the “if you have any questions paragraph”, followed by a signature which must have come from an early work of Gilbert and Sullivan:

L***** H****
Inquiry Resolution Specialist
Government Grievance Inquiry Unit
Client Services Department

I have no idea what it means, but she did (eventually) make the payment.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Get off the stove, grandma . . .

. . . you're too old to ride the range. A dumb putative title for a country and western song, but one that Ernie loves to quote. I was reminded of it last night.

As a sidebar, I must admit that there were two deterrents to resuming this blog—one, the fear that the templates, the settings and the HTML editing would have changed, and two, the challenge of updating links.

The first fear was pretty ungrounded and the link update is tedious, but not difficult. While I was away I didn't read any blogs and now I discover some of my favorites are gone or moved to other platforms. So I'm not done yet.

One link I am keeping is to a well written, well researched blog entitled Time Goes By. Any of you who are older or are planning on becoming older, would do well to read it. The author, Ronni Bennett, runs the gamut from pending legislation, including everything Medicare recipients should know about Health Care to whether long grey hair is attractive. One of her biggest bones of contention is the stereotyping of seniors and the vocabulary used to describe them.

Back to last night and the latest edition of Top Chef. There's always bickering and backstabbing among the contestants and yes, I know it is edited for maximum effect, but last night, as they were awaiting the judges' decision, someone said, "I hope grandma is gone." He was referring to Robin Leventhal, aged 43. That's forty three, people.

Robin was not eliminated and "Grandma" is still riding the range.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Only in Grosse Pointe

One of the aims of this blog is the celebration of the absurd. Where better to find inspiration for a post than the Crime Watch section of the Grosse Pointe Times. Take, for example, the October 1 edition. I pass over the bunny trapped in the window well, the criminal suspected of “wasting perfectly good butter by putting it on a colleague’s car” and give you—

Bear Complaint made.

Police responded at 4:37 p.m. Sept. 21 to a possible ordinance violation after a neighbor complained about a 10-foot inflatable bear in a University of Michigan shirt on a front lawn.

The city’s ordinance states that lawn ornaments can only be displayed for a reasonable amount of time. Since U-M football games are still going on, police did not feel this was an ordinance violation.
No mention of the neighbor taking this all the way to the Supreme Court.

Friday, October 09, 2009

I have news for you, ANA

So, Air Nippon Airways has started asking passengers (in Japanese) to use the bathroom before boarding their planes. This in the interest of a greener planet.

I don’t know about you, but I make as many visits to the bathroom as is humanly possible before getting on a plane. Ever hear, “Hey, Mabel, let’s not use the ubiquitous, clean and spacious bathrooms in the terminal, so we can wait until we reach cruising altitude to climb over the fat guy in the aisle seat, squeeze around the coffee or meal service carts, wait in line in the cramped aisle and finally use the Lilliputian facilities in a space which resembles a sardine can?”

What planet is Japan on?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Sylvia Smith, December 14, 1939-September 15, 2009

Lindsell Hall was a University of London residence hall in Swiss Cottage. There were four houses of the “Upstairs Downstairs” variety, joined to two more on a couple of levels. In this photo you can see an outside bridge on the left. The houses were converted into a myriad of rooms, mainly by constructing a wall from the corridor to the middle of the handsome bay windows. I moved in about 50 years ago to the day. My room was on the ground floor, somewhere to the right of this photo, across the hall from the Lindsell Hall Dean, a Chemistry professor who wordsmiths must have had in mind when they came up with the phrase, “dour Scots woman”.

The prime rooms were on the top floor—once the bleak sleeping rooms of tweenies and housemaids. I had one in my last year with a glorious view over the housetops of Swiss Cottage and St. Johns Wood. The kitchen and laundry room were in the basement and there were a few student rooms down there, mainly, I think, in the left hand building.

It was from one of those rooms that music came pouring out as we explored on that first day—music that was alien to most of us who were just discovering the Beatles. The record was “Four Freshmen and Five Trombones”. The record player belonged to Sylvia Smith, and she quickly became a close friend. She assured me in a letter just a few weeks ago that she was also humming along at that time to a Bartok violin concerto, but it is the Four Freshmen that I remember. I loved the way she said “Scunthorpe” and she introduced me to a delicious bread, forever know as “Sylv’s mum’s plum bread.” Try saying “ moom’s ploom.” She visited my house in Enfield and intrigued me with details of her minor, Agricultural Economics.

She moved out of Lindsell in our senior year into a flat with Anne and Maggie and Jan. I don’t know how much they studied, but they sure had a good time.

Then came the year when I was working on my ed. certificate and Sylv lived in a minute flat on Haverstock Hill. She put her minor to good use working for the Pig Industry Advisory Board—“This is my friend Sylvia. She’s in pigs.” Later she was in sheep. She got to know my friends. I got to know hers. When I needed cheering up, she came to the rescue with a mushroom omelet.

Then for almost 50 years we lived thousands of miles apart. Our correspondence was sporadic. Sometimes there were gaps; sometimes the letters were frequent (Sylv refused to use e-mail.) We stayed in her house in London and Kate and Ron used it as a base for exploring London on their honeymoon. She reminded me lately that she had taken Al in when he failed to find a job in Paris. We usually managed birthday cards: her birthday was just four days after mine. She remained friends with many of my former friends.
Here she is (second from the right) when she witnessed the wedding of my classicist friend, Frances.

She remained passionate about music, traveling all over England and Europe to Music Festivals. I was forever getting postcards from Prague or Stockholm extolling the Mahler or the Mozart. She took advantage of everything cultural London had to offer. About 20 years ago she bought a second house, in Scotland. I never could pronounce Kirkcudbright, but I looked forward to the day when I could get organized enough to visit her there. When she retired and left London, she bought a second residence in Scotland, a flat high in a house at the mouth of the Clyde where she could watch the ships making their way up to Glasgow. Just as she was beginning to enjoy the results of the remodeling of the flat, she was diagnosed with cancer. She never told me: I am not entirely sure who knew the severity of her illness. I think it gradually leaked out and our mutual friend Frances kept me in the loop. It was easier to live on the one floor of the house in Kirkcudbright, so she spent most of her time there, refusing, in her Sylvia fashion, any intrusive treatment. Even more defiantly she bought a new car, attended as much as she could of this year’s Orkney music Festival and spent two weeks driving around the northern tip of Scotland. Then it was off to the hospice ward in Dumfries. I spoke to her there and she didn’t want sympathy. She enjoyed a lovely day in the sunshine in her garden when an ambulance and nurses took her back for a day. The last time I phoned, she was too ill to talk and a few days later Frances called with news of her death.

I have asked her sister for some recent photos of Sylvia. I don’t really need them. Her real face, the face of a young woman starting college, flashes before my eyes when I see the words Kirkcudbright or Scunthorpe, when I eat a mushroom omelet or when I hear a snatch of the incomparable Four Freshmen singing Angel Eyes.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


This blog will return soon. Right now I am posting some recollections I compiled as a contribution to remarks to be made at the next (and penultimate) meeting of the Enfield County Old Girls’ Association. The photo inserted in the earlier post identifies the subject of these remembrances. The pin shown here was our official Enfield County School pin, worn by us with much pride. You can also find more memories of our camping days here.

Miss F. Sharp—my memories

It’s the suit I remember first: brown and mustard tweed, with a straight skirt. She can’t have worn it every day, but it seems that way. When I look at the photos I have of the school prefects, I recall her “photo” suit. It was a lighter brown with a white stripe. And in summer wasn’t there a beige linen dress? But it is her everyday suit that made the biggest impression. There’s the iron grey bobbed hair, tucked behind the ear on one side, held back by a tortoiseshell clasp on the other. She completed the picture with lisle stockings and sturdy brown lace-up shoes.

There was so much we didn’t know about her: in those days we would never have dreamed of asking. Until Carol referred to her as F.E., I always assumed it was Effie. Where did she go to university? How old was she? Somehow we believed that she, like most of our teachers, was “old.” She first became my teacher in 1952 and it was much, much later, when I read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, that I learned that women her age had had a hard time being admitted to degree programs, let alone in Latin and Greek. She knew her stuff and had kept up to date with teaching methods. She greeted us, the class of 2L, with a confusing “Salvete, discipulae,” leaving us convinced that not only was Latin a subject worth learning, but a language that could be spoken. Winston Churchill said “I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour and Greek as a treat.” There were a handful of us who enjoyed that treat, and our results in A and S level were an indication of her effectiveness as a teacher.

Her role, however, was not confined to teaching. As deputy head mistress she was charged with keeping discipline, and a summons to her little room outside the library left many students quaking in their shoes. Beneath her steely exterior was a kind and gracious woman. During a rehearsal for a school play I had managed to step on my glasses case, skid across the floor and break my ankle. My leg was put in a cast and I walked on crutches, and for my whole recuperation Miss Sharp made a huge detour from her home in Woodford Green to Freezywater to pick me up and drive me to school.

She drove a little black car. People who knew about cars said it was courting disaster to travel with her, but several of us willingly did so every year when we went to compete in the Classical Verse and Prose Speaking competition. She drove us across London to Dulwich College, knowing all the while that the prizes would be won by schools like Haberdashers' Aske's, but Miss Sharp trained us and gave us the confidence that we could compete with them. Fifty years later I can still recite the beginning of Clytemnestra’s speech from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.

A few of us were privileged to know her in another role, that of Cadet Captain. We met once a week after school, although I can’t remember at all what we did at our meetings. I do remember we made tea before the meeting started and that, as we came closer to summer, we spent a lot of time sorting and repairing the camping equipment. There were Easter and Whitsun camps in places like Theydon Bois and Chigwell. Summer camp was the highlight of the year and I went to three camps, two in Scotland and one in Cornwall. We traveled by train and were met at the station by a farmer in his lorry. Somehow all our equipment had been loaded onto the train and transferred onto the lorry with us. With our teenage ignorance of logistics, we failed to realize how much work Miss Sharp and her trusty deputy, Miss Hodges, had put into finding a site, arranging transportation, ordering groceries and arranging for the digging of latrines. I have several hazy black and white photographs of our time in camp and I see Miss Sharp sitting on the ground with us to eat our meals and even paddling up to her knees in the sea in Cornwall. She organized the meals, including the famous summer pudding, and I will never forget how she admonished a girl who went to get a new pot of jam when there was just the smallest trace of jam in the old one. (Remember that rationing was not too far in the past.) These camps took us to many places that we, as suburban children still feeling the economic effects of the war, would not otherwise have visited. We did not pay an excessive amount and I wonder now if she found a way to subsidize the cost, not only of the camp but of the trips we made in the afternoons. My photo album bears witness to trips through the Trossachs, Holy Loch, the Kyles of Bute, St. Just-in-Roseland and Megavissey, among many others.

After I left school, Ms. Sharp wrote to me several times. I kept up the correspondence even after I moved to America, married and had children. It is one of my biggest regrets that I let my busy life stand in the way of the thoughtful letters she deserved. After a while, the letters stopped. I was convinced that marked her death, but I had no way of finding out.

In complete contrast to Miss Sharp, with her ramrod straight back and her no nonsense hair and suits, there was Mrs. Parker. She too taught Latin and Greek. I did not have her for many classes and I have no idea how they divided up the students. When I think of her I recall sausage curls, flowered dresses and pearl necklaces. But, sadly, I have no photos to jog my memory. Again, I know nothing of her background— with the single exception of her son, Michael. I don’t think there was a husband in the picture, but Michael was her pride and joy. Most students at the County School were smart enough to figure out if a teacher knew her subject, and the grandmotherly Mrs. Parker belied her appearance and taught us well.

These are my recollections of our Classics teachers. Maybe some of you who taught at the County School (Joan Hart?) want to jump up and say, “No, you got it wrong!” Maybe I did. If anyone can fill me in on the lives of these two fascinating women, please do so, but somehow I think my recollections are forever engraved on my memory and will never change